Every time you read a novel, you get a peek into the writer’s soul. Some authors are good at separating themselves from the story, especially if they write about a character unlike themselves (Jack Reacher, for example, who is not like Lee Child). Yet I believe that circumstances in each writer’s life affect what they write in at least small ways.
For example, if I have a headache when I’m writing, one of my characters will have a headache on the page that day, which I may later edit out. Or if I’m trying to lose weight, one of my minor characters will likely be in the same mode. Why not? Characters need realistic details to come to life on the page.
The pattern of transferring our own circumstances into the fiction we write happens on a much broader scale too. When I wrote The Sex Club, the first book in the Detective Jackson series, my son was in Iraq and I worried every day that he would die. And my sister had just died of cancer and I grieved for her. So Kera, my main female protagonist was dealing with those elements. Right or wrong, I couldn’t separate those emotions from my writing and they ended up on the page.
Writing what you feel gives a story passion and realism that draws readers in. Yet there’s a fine line that novelists have to be careful with. Earlier I mentioned Jack Reacher, a popular character for millions of crime fiction readers. He comes to mind because of a discussion on a listserv I participate in, which is what triggered this blog. Readers were discussing the author’s last two stories. Some felt the character had changed too much, and others thought the writing had changed too much. It made me wonder if something significant had changed in the author’s life. I have to mention that many readers said they loved both stories and that the author, Lee Child, is a very nice person who I’ve been fortunate to meet at Bouchercon.
But the listserv comments made me realize that readers notice changes in an author’s style, and if they follow the author’s personal life, they make connections. During the discussion, one list member said, “The writing reminds me of Robert Ludlum’s novel just prior to his cardiac event. It didn’t feel like a Ludlum novel…”
As an author, I hope to learn from this, but I’m realistic enough to accept that whatever is happening in my personal life will somehow affect what I write. When I outlined Dying for Justice, I was planning to start a new series, so I could pitch to a new publisher, and that affected the POV and plot of the story. Having just finished the fifth Jackson novel, I’m at a point of choosing what to write next. After five detective novels, I’m ready to try something new. Throw in five months of winter and I’m experiencing some cabin fever and crying out for a change of pace.
So I’ve decided to write a futuristic thriller, based on an outline I crafted a year ago. In reading back through the outline, I realize the theme of the novel is rather dark, and a year ago, I was at rock bottom in my career. It’s no coincidence.
Earlier this week, I took the first chapter to a critique group and they loved it, so I’m going to finish writing the story. But considering that my life and career are doing quite well now, I expect the ending to be more upbeat than I had originally planned.
Readers: What changes have you noticed in writers’ styles because of personal circumstances?
Writers: How has your personal life affected your writing?
L.J. Sellers is the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries and standalone thrillers.